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Mauro F. Guillén's review

Reproduced from Administrative Science Quarterly, March 2001 (46:1:151-153), permission of ASQ.

Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster, Lee Clarke. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Organizations are powerful tools, however recalcitrant, but they can also be very presumptuous and overconfident. Even those that deal with highly dangerous activities-nuclear power, oil transportation, toxic waste disposal, natural disaster relief-engage in all sorts of often unrealistic planning to reassure various constituencies that they can deal with emergency situations imperiling the lives of thousands, perhaps millions of people. This is the theme of Clarke's new book, a well-researched, balanced, and highly readable study of how organizations fantasize (in writing!) about their ability to cope with disaster. In his view, organizations whose activities are prone to large-scale disaster have to engage in planning even when it is apparent to virtually everyone involved that "planning" for such occurrences is an improbable task. Hence, Clarke argues that planning becomes a rhetoric directed at outside audiences that need to be reassured about safety concerns.

Clarke is at his best when he describes how intrinsically difficult it is to cope with some of the calamities that high-technologies can visit upon us. He glosses over how hard it is to evacuate densely populated areas, such as Long Island, in case of a nuclear emergency, whether civil or military. The trouble is not only that moving hundreds of thousands of people takes time even if they cooperate and do not panic, but also that one cannot assume emergency and relief workers will remain at their posts rather than taking care of their families. Similarly, building and operating a nuclear power plant is reasonably well understood, unless something goes wrong, as it does every ten years or so somewhere in the world. Technologies to deal with a nuclear reactor meltdown, unfortunately, are not well developed. Oil spills provide further illustration. While technology is available to build and operate huge oil tankers, techniques to clean up an oil spill are still primitive.

Clarke supports his arguments with a dozen or so cases of fantasy planning ranging from the scary to the plainly comical. I cannot resist briefly describing the case of the U.S. Postal Service's preparedness plan in the event of nuclear war. The plan laid out the lines of command, who would replace whom in case of death, the means of transportation available, and so on. A Congressional committee scrutinized the plan in the early 1980s, with representatives and senators inquiring as to who among those spared by the nuclear attack would be in a position to write letters or pay bills let alone read the letters or deposit the payments.

Clarke argues, quite convincingly, that the production of organizational rhetoric in the form of "fantasy documents" specifying how to deal with emergency situations is not something that elites alone orchestrate. Rather, fantasy documents are the product of social and political conflicts among organizational elites, regulatory agencies, local governments, the courts, consulting firms, social protest groups, the press, the general public, and other formal organizations. Thus, Clarke takes us one important step ahead in arguing that fantasy documents are not merely the result of the machinations of powerful elites, but are the complex outcome of social conflict, mostly among organizations. Although Clarke never uses the term, "organizational field," Mission Improbable amounts to a fine study of how various types of organizations concerned with large-scale disasters interact with one another and shape each other's actions.

Perhaps the key contribution of the book is the argument that fantasy documents help organizations translate uncertainty into risk, acceptable risk, that is. While Clarke has explored the issue of risk in earlier books, Mission Improbable lays out this argument in greater detail and with considerable supporting evidence. Managers rely on technical expertise and language to make affinities between known and relatively frequent disasters-such as floods, wild fires, snow storms, tornadoes, train wrecks, etc.-and massive, relatively rare disasters like nuclear power plant accidents or nuclear war, whose consequences are hard to predict and difficult to deal with. It is precisely such massive uncertainty that, according to Clarke, changes the nature of planning to such an extent that organizations resort to fantasizing about their ability to cope with disaster. This is particularly true of such organizations as electrical utilities, because they deal with natural disasters that disrupt electricity distribution all the time but with accidents at nuclear power plants only every now and then. The former are well understood in their consequences and response methods while the latter are rare and difficult to deal with. As a result of the high degree of uncertainty surrounding contingency plans for nuclear accidents, utilities prepare contingency plans using blueprints developed and successfully implemented for natural disasters. Thus, Clarke concludes, the attempt to establish an affinity between the civil defense actions required to cope with localized natural disasters and the civil defense necessary to deal with nuclear war or accidents is essentially a fantasy.

Clarke's analysis vacillates as to whether fantasy documents have no effect at all because of their unrealistic assumptions or they actually exacerbate the danger. At some points in the book he seems to argue that the organizations that produce such documents do not alter their ways of operating. Their daily routines appear to be loosely coupled to the actions required to address disasters when and if they occur. Toward the end of the book, however, Clarke notes that fantasizing about their ability to cope with disasters leads organizations to reduce their vigilance and forego opportunities for organizational learning. Moreover, prevention can suffer if organizational participants believe that there is an effective plan in place to deal with failure. While I suspect that this second assessment is the correct one, the book would have benefited from a clearer and better supported answer to this cardinal question. In particular, a definition of the fantasy document not only as a "tool of persuasion" but also as a "cultural artifact" would have helped Clarke analyze the different ways in which fantasizing may shape day-to-day organizational decisions even in the absence of disaster.

Clarke is careful not to argue that planning does no good at all. In fact, he reviews several cases of disasters whose consequences were alleviated by realistic planning. Although the tone of the book is (rightly) critical of organizations and their disaster planning efforts, Clarke's analysis is balanced, sensible, and well documented. Mission Improbable succeeds as an analysis of how organizations cope with the possibility of inflicting major damage on the community because of their dangerous undertakings. I recommend this book for undergraduate and graduate courses on the role of organizations in society, decision-making, high-technology undertakings, and power and organizations. I also recommend it to those in our field who believe that organizations-even the most sophisticated ones-are all about technical rationality and optimization.

Mauro F. Guillén
The Wharton School and Department of Sociology
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6370